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Budget committee votes 'not to recommend' paraprofessionals contract

October 22, 2009
WAKEFIELD — The Budget Committee voted eight to zero with two abstentions last week not to recommend the Wakefield School Special Budget request to cover cost increases to the paraprofessionals labor contract.

A public hearing followed the Budget Committee's review held Oct. 15 at the Opera House. Voters will get a chance to weigh in on the paraprofessionals contract, which includes increases in salary and added health benefits, at a special town meeting. The Deliberative Session will be held on Nov. 9 at 7 p.m. at the Paul School, with voting day set for Dec. 7 from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Opera House.

The costs of the three-year labor contract are projected as follows, according to the draft minutes of the meeting:

For year 2009-2010, a total increase of $28,473.75 to the budget; for 2010-2011, an increase of $121,879.02; and for 2011-2012, an increase of $33,513.75.

At the meeting, Budget Committee Chair Howie Knight said the school board does not believe this contract is in the best interest of the town because of its unpredictable expense and precedent setting actions. It was pointed out, according to the draft minutes, that these were cumulative figures and that the health benefits cost figures presume only 14 of the eligible 30 eligible papa-professionals participate in single person coverage. Based on current premiums, the health benefit cost could reach $210,000 in lieu of the $99,315.02 listed in year two above. After additional discussion, Budget Committee member Judy Nason introduced the motion not to recommend the special warrant article, which was seconded, then passed.

At the public hearing following the Budget Committee session, Knight clarified the scope of the meeting. The special election is for one warrant article only – whether or not to accept the Fact-Finders report on negotiations between the Wakefield School Board and the Wakefield Paraprofessional's Union/NEA-NH. The process is unusual for the committee in that the item is not a budget, nor is it a negotiated contract. In response to a query from David Lee, School Board Chair Janet Gagnon explained that early in 2009, the board met with the union on several occasions to discuss relative positions. No agreement was reached on some points so both parties agreed to secure the services of a moderator. The moderator was unable to break the impasses, so both parties agreed to the next step, hiring a fact-finder to determine a position based on due diligent conversations with both parties. The union voted to accept the fact-finders report, but the school board rejected the report, according to the draft minutes of the meeting. At this point, the school board was required by law to petition the state Superior Court for permission for a special election; the court approved the petition and the dates were set.

Knight explained that this was an "all or nothing" vote. If the town passes the warrant article, the fact-finders report essentially becomes the contract between the union and the town. If the town rejects the warrant article, the union and the school board begin negotiations all over again.

In further discussion, Gagnon explained there are three levels of paraprofessionals: non-certified, certified and highly qualified. The school currently has 13 highly qualified, one certified, and 16 uncertified paraprofessionals, for a total of 30.

One key observation among several speakers at the meeting, according to the minutes, was that the town's other 32 part time employees would also request health benefits should this contract/warrant article pass. It was also noted that the fact-finders estimate that only 10 paraprofessionals would enroll in health insurance if offered was not dependable. Knight also noted that three years ago, when given the option of health insurance cost participation or a 13.5 percent pay increase, the paraprofessionals, without a union, elected the pay increase in lieu of health insurance. He later estimated, in response to a query, that if approved the warrant article could have an 18 cent per thousand of assessed value on the property tax rate, based on 50 percent membership participation, but that impact could easily go up to 27 cents per thousand, he added.

According to the minutes, another audience member noted that the tax rate couldn't be set until this issue was resolved. Town Administrator Robin Frost said she expected there would be a 60-day delay in mailing out the tax bills and that payments would not be due until the end of January. Further, with current economic conditions, she expects that the town's borrowing of operations funds would cost approximately $10,000. She added that the town would need approximately $1 million to meet its December and January expenses.

Another resident at the meeting said she thought the contract would open up a hornet's next. The trickle down effect of working with a union always meant that things would get more expensive, she stated in the minutes. With property valuation down, taxes up and the economy a mess, this is a hard time to ask for a significant budget increase. Nason replied that this was why the school board and budget committee are recommending the town reject the article.

After additional discussion, the committee finally closed the public hearing and took their final vote, eight in favor not to recommend, none opposed, and two abstentions.

Martin Lord Osman
Tilton School
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